Date: Saturday 6th August 2011
Kick-off: 14:30 (BST)
Martin Johnson’s side are the Six Nations champions, a title they haven’t held since 2003, and of course that year they went on to win the World Cup. So England do have the weight of expectation boring into their shoulders but there should also be a level of optimism. Captain Lewis Moody is back after recovering from a knee injury which kept him out for the first six months of 2011. And England have no real injury concerns at all now. This is the first of their three warm-up matches and England have to use it wisely as they make the transition from a training squad to a team who’s in contention to challenge for a third successive final.
Wales must not treat this as just another warm-up game, for the last time they played England on a sweltering Saturday in August was an unmitigated disaster. It was in 2007 at HQ in the build-up to the last World Cup and on that occasion England thrashed Wales 62-5, which included nine tries. Gareth Jenkins, the coach at the time, fielded a weakened team and never recovered from it. He was relieved of his duties eight weeks later when Wales’ lacklustre World Cup campaign was ended by Fiji in the pool stage.
Warren Gatland will have taken note of that defeat and has named a strong side for the game. He said: “We’ve probably learned some lessons from 2007 and in hindsight, I don’t think Gareth would pick such a weak side again.” An interesting omission from the squad is Gavin Henson. Gatland has been keen to give Henson as many chances as possible to prove himself as he’s only started four games in the last two years, so it’s odd that he hasn’t been included.
What to expect
As the advertising and pre-match build-up says “This is no Warm Up”. England v Wales is rarely a dull affair and a full house at HQ should make for an enthralling game. Unlike four years ago when Wales wilted in the heat, the temperature is only expected to reach a high of 23 degrees. And players from both sides will want to show why they deserve a seat on the plane to New Zealand. For people such as Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi, who’s making his debut for England, they will be playing to their full potential.
Under Johnson England have been ruthless in the line out and the scrum (apart from that Ireland match in March) and their driving maul is second to none. England will go in heavy with the forwards early on to try and build up a lead by overwhelming Wales and will then give their backs a creative license. Wales must maintain their discipline and their performance largely depends on Stephen Jones’ kicking.
All eyes on:
Matt Stevens has not featured for England since November 2008 as he was banned from rugby for two years after testing positive for cocaine. But Stevens has turned his life around, now with a new family including twin daughters, he has a new lease of life. And the 28-year-old will make an emotional return to the national side against Wales after impressing last season in helping Saracens win the Aviva Premiership. There are still seven props in England’s World Cup training squad but Stevens’ versatility in being able to play tight or loose gives him an advantage over the rest. He said: “I am happy to play wherever I get picked for England.”
George North broke a few records when he burst on to the international scene in last year’s Autumn international series, notably becoming the youngest player to score a try on his debut, at 18 years and 214 days. He terrified the South Africans on that day and will no doubt do so again when Wales play the Springboks in their opening World Cup match next month. The Scarlets winger missed most of this year’s Six Nations tournament due to a shoulder problem but he’s now fully fit and will make his mark over the next couple of months, starting on Saturday.
Head-to-head: Jonny Wilkinson v Stephen Jones
This might be obvious but it’s going to come down to the two fly-halves. England love their territory play and Wilkinson’s kicking will be pivotal in that. The Toulon player may also be motivated by needing just 10 points to overtake Dan Carter and reclaim the world point-scoring record.
As for Wales, Jones is their most experienced player and is second in the list for the country’s all-time leading points scorers, with 889, and Saturday’s match will see him become their most-capped international when he makes his 101st appearance. Wales have had to call on his experience and kicking prowess on countless occasions in the past and this time will be no different.
I think England will win, simple as that, but the scoreline depends on how well Wales can maintain their discipline. Gatland’s team had four sin bins during the Six Nations including Craig Mitchell against England, which ultimately cost them the match. They will be placed under an intense amount of pressure and they will probably crack like they have done all too frequently over the last two years. I will say England to win by 10 points.
By Tim Hart
Tim Hart is a freelance journalist who works for Reuters Sport and ITV Sport. He is also a compulsive Tweeter and you can follow him @Timwellspent